Breath is our main source of prana, or life force, and is one of the most basic human functions as well as one of the most profound! It is also one of our greatest tools and the key to our nervous system. When you inhale, the diaphragm- a dome-shaped muscle separating the lungs from the abdominal cavity contracts. This contraction, like a void ready to be filled, allows your lungs to expand and fill with air. On your exhale, the diaphragm returns to its normal position and the lungs reduce back to their original shape.
Why breathing is so important to our overall health is that breathing unlike any other system is both under involuntary and voluntary actions. The respiratory center of the brain stem involuntarily controls your breathing. It is automatic and often mindless, but when we can harness the breath we can reduce trauma and stress from the body.
Breath and the Nervous System
Your breath responds to the stress put on your body, which is controlled by the Autonomic nervous system. The Autonomic nervous system (ANS), part of your peripheral nervous system (everything except the brain and spinal cord), is responsible for responding to our environment. We respond in one of two ways: either the mind-body perceives threats and initiates the fight, flight, freeze responses or perceives safety and maintains homeostatic balance where rest, repair, and growth can happen. These two response options are part of ANS known as the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
When your body is relaxed, breathing is typically long and smooth. This relaxed state is governed by the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate and stimulates digestion. It is your rest-and-digest state. When your body is at rest, it directs energy toward necessary functions such as sleep and fat burning. It is important for muscle regeneration, brain health, a healthy immune system, and gut health.
When we undergo stress, whether that’s physical from a traumatic experience or mental from high stress situations at work, your heart rate beats faster and increases its blood pressure. This is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system is your fight-flight-and freeze response. Think of a time when you were afraid, looking off a cliff edge, giving a public talk, or dealing with a traumatic event, your chest tightens, your breathing gets rapid and shallow, maybe you feel lightheaded- this is your sympathetic nervous system taking over. The SNS sends stress hormones, such as adrenaline, into the bloodstream, causing increased heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, contraction of muscles, and depressed non-essential functions like digestion.
While this is a natural response of our body, if we are in our sympathetic nervous system too long or too often (i.e. childhood trauma or an abusive relationship) it can lead to long term affects on our health. Trauma is stored in a body. The long-term impacts of trauma get stored within the body often as muscle tension or numbness where the trauma happened (The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk M.D. 267). When people are chronically scared or angry, Dr. Van Der Kolk explains in his book, this constant tension in the body can become worse issues such as migraines, back pain, spasms, and fibromyalgia (268). These are often symptoms of a much deeper issue. This demonstrates why treating the root of the problem is more important than treating just the symptoms.
How does this apply to us all?
Prana or breathing is one part of the autonomic nervous system that can be controlled. It can therefore be used to help facilitate which response is evoked during stressful situations. Pranayama is a Sanskrit term that means to practice breath control. One pranayama exercise is to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing done regularly can help to strengthen the diaphragm, improve the capacity of the lungs, and optimize the benefits of deep respiration.
Deep breathing benefits includes:
- Reduces stress
- Enhances gut health
- Treats anxiety, depression, and anger
- Improves pain tolerance and perception
- Position yourself in a comfortable position. Most people find it easiest to start while lying on the ground, on your back. You can bend your knees and place your feed hip distance on the ground. Once you feel comfortable with the technique, you may try moving into a seated position for the breathing exercise.
- Place one hand on your belly, and one hand on your chest.
- Gently close your lips and breathe through your nose. Nasal breathing provides optimal oxygenation and parasympathetic nervous system response.
- Focus on the breath moving into your nose and filling up your belly. The hand over your belly will rise and fall, while the hand over your chest should hardly move.
- Focusing on stilling the chest while relaxing and filling the belly helps to encourage perpendicular diaphragmatic movement. This type of contraction allows your lungs to expand deeply by contracting the diaphragm, which in turn pushes against the abdominal organs. The downward pressure of the diaphragm causes the stomach to rise, providing healthy movement to the abdominal organs and pelvic floor.
- Practice. Pranayama can, and should, be practiced daily. Try incorporating five to ten minutes into your daily routine.
Pranayama when you don’t have time
Feeling stressed while on the go? Maybe your boss upset you, you are running late for an appointment, or you have a big presentation. You can use your breath to shift your state of being, no matter where you are or who you are with.
· Gently close your lips and breathe through your nose
· Trace the movement of your inhale down, past your chest, into your belly
· Relax your jaw. Let your tongue fall away from the roof of your mouth. Unclench any clenched teeth.
· Practice counting—count to five on the inhale and five again on the exhale. Repeat for as long as you need until you feel centered.
Breath is the most simple and rich source of lifeforce. It is important to not take breathing for granted as we often do in our busy lives. Whether you have time for a full Pranayama practice, or simply find yourself breathing more through your nose and less through your mouth, you will be doing good for both your body and your mind.